Writing Advice and Rule-Breaking

aka Still Not The All-Encompassing Wizard World Philadelphia Post (sorry)

One of the things I’ve always believed is that writing is such a deeply individual process that there’s very little I can teach someone else about craft.

I’m not talking about basics like grammar and vocabulary. I tend to assume writers are either already well-versed in those subjects, or recognize that it’s a learning curve that needs to be climbed if they expect readers to engage. Everyone knows That Guy who self-pubbed their novel, and the first page is full of improper Capitalization and stray, commas and too! many! exclamation! points! and nobody wants to be That Guy. Grammar and vocabulary are learnable skills, and trying to write without them is going to get you the same sorts of results you’d get if you tried to fix your dishwasher with a pipe cleaner and some Post-It notes.

(Do you like the mangled metaphor? I think I’ll choose to say it’s intended to be illustrative.)

So when someone asks a question about a work they’ve completed, I tend to respond with the assumption that it’s already well-written. If someone, for example, asks how much trouble they’re going to have getting representation for their 250,000-word debut novel, I tell them, “It’s not impossible, but it’s a longshot.” Which is, statistically speaking, the truth.

Of course, other people tend to provide more useful responses like “You know, odds are at 250,000 words your manuscript is kind of meandery or repetitive or expositiony, so you may want to do some heavy-duty editing before you try querying it.” Which, to be fair, is much more likely the case, especially if you’re talking to a beginning writer. And it’s good advice in any case: don’t write a 250,000-word novel unless you absolutely must write a 250,000-word novel. And don’t write a non-standard query letter, and don’t write any info-dumps, and show don’t tell, and good God, get rid of those adverbs.

All of that advice is good, and solid. And sometimes it’s absolutely, 100% wrong.

One of the panels I did in Philadelphia was called Writing Compelling Science Fiction. The two gentlemen who put it together have been running it for years, and it’s been quite popular. It covers some basics about spec fic and story structure, and is designed to encourage people still feeling their way toward building and completing their stories. How I ended up on the panel is a bit of a tale, but the runners were gracious and inclusive and marvelous hosts.

And I kind of stepped on their advice at one point, even though, strictly speaking, their advice was good.

Someone in the audience had asked about chapter headings. He referenced Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD as an example of a book that did really well but had no traditional chapter breaks. The hosts advised him to absolutely not do that, that no publisher or agent would look at the manuscript without chapter breaks.

I disagreed. I told the person chapter breaks were just a pacing tool, and if the story doesn’t call for them, don’t use them. I suggested they query the book without chapter breaks, and if they found themselves getting rejections on pages they could always add chapter breaks and see if they got a better response. They could then fight the chapter-break fight with their editor once they got an agent and sold it to a publisher.

Now, in fairness, it’s possible the audience member was That Guy, and I just enabled bad habits.

But what if they’re Cormac McCarthy? What if they have something poetic and beautiful and passionate that would be flattened by chapter breaks? How many people have it in them to build something amazing, but take a step back because of an arbitrary Most People Do It This Way rule?

What if that novel really does need to be 250,000 words?

One of the most successful science fiction books in recent years is OLD MAN’S WAR, which I didn’t get a chance to read until recently (after, to be fair, years of my spouse telling me I was missing something I’d love). From a craft perspective, it’s of course written extremely well. The author turns a phrase and knows how to get a reaction from the reader. And past the basics, he writes complex, believable characters, and sets up vivid worlds–pretty much what you’d expect from a best-selling science fiction author.

But narratively? The book breaks a whole bunch of rules. The first two-thirds of it is exposition–fascinating, entertaining exposition (which is possible!), but still. And then there’s the point where you realize this military science fiction novel is actually a pretty traditional romance–once again, beautifully done, but kinda breaks the rules of what one’s supposed to do with a story like this.

I read a book like OLD MAN’S WAR, and I think about all the people told “No, stop writing exposition!” or “You can’t play with genre like that!” and I wonder how many of those people were writing something gorgeous and stopped because they thought they wouldn’t be able to sell it. Is it most of them? Probably not–but if it’s even one, isn’t that too many?

When it comes down to it, as a reader, I want to read something that engages and moves me. Yes, most of the books I’ve loved have traditional narrative structures, but not all of them. Another favorite of mine, SHARDS OF HONOR, is basically four separate stories in a single volume, and it’s a book I reread not just for pleasure, but because I’m fascinated by how, despite the non-traditional pacing, it works perfectly beginning to end.

The other side of this–and that person’s question at the panel really brought it into focus for me–is how much of the writing advice given is geared toward getting the writer published. “Don’t write X genre because it’s over-saturated.” “Don’t write a prologue because too many rookies screw them up.” “Make sure you use traditional chapter breaks.” “Don’t write a chapter longer than Y words.” “Always write first person past/third person limited/etc. for Z genre, because otherwise no one will read it.”

It’s a hard line to draw, because most people who write believe the next logical step is being read, and therefore published. Self-publishing has added another dimension to this, and it’s a double-edged sword: you don’t have to worry about X genre being oversaturated or how many words your chapters have, but you also don’t have to pound your craft into submission before you throw something up for the world to see.

And I’m not convinced, having been on both sides of it, that publishing (of any variety) is the right goal for every story.

I can hear the working writers screaming at me for that, or laughing at me, or thinking I’m horribly naive or privileged. Fair points all. I know some writers who are absolutely writing to market, and loving it, and doing well, and they are no less creative or Artistic™ than the people who scratch at parchment with a feather dipped in ink. Writing is a craft on top of everything else, and if you want to sell to the world, you owe it to your work to make your craft as good as it can possibly be.

But at the same time, writing is an art. It’s self-expression. Everything from fanfic to tie-ins to pulp to and-I-thought-ULYSSES-was-weird stuff is self-expression. Here are my guts, wrapped up in words and plot and characters and (sometimes) chapter breaks.

I’m not sure we nurture good writers by telling them the main goal of writing is to write something they can sell. Maybe the goal of writing shouldn’t be make this publishable but rather hone your ability to make your story read on the page the way it does in your head. Screw sales. Screw publishing. Learn how to use your tools, not just the grammar and vocabulary, but the experiences and perspectives that are unique to you. Take satisfaction in translating that piece of yourself that you want to share in a way that’s as true to yourself as you can make it.

And maybe it never sells. Maybe you show it to your friends and they look at you like you’ve grown a second head. Maybe you never show it to anyone. But if it’s what you wanted it to be…is that enough? Shouldn’t it be enough? Because no writer produces Thing 2 if they never sit down and write Thing 1.

I ran across an essay yesterday (that I won’t link to) talking about how important it is not to tell kids that they shouldn’t be professional writers, that somehow telling them they should keep a day job is discouraging or inhibiting their creativity. Apart from the irresponsible naïveté of that–it’s the same thing. We’re telling developing writers that the only goal should be publishing, when the truth is that even if their eventual goal is publishing, it’s far more important to learn how to build their own stories, whether or not they ever get shared with the world.

Writing, for me, has always been equal parts escapism, therapy, and entertainment. That some of my stories have made it out to the world is marvelous…but it’s a different thing than the writing itself. I’ll always write. If I hadn’t sold a book, I’d still always write. I love the craft of it, the satisfaction of re-reading something and recognizing that it really does work the way I want it to. I love writing and writing and realizing only after I’m finished what it was I needed to say.

That’s the sort of thing I’d like to see nurtured in writers still working on their craft (and we’re all, no matter how experienced, still working on our craft). Yes, there are rules–not just of grammar–that should be broken rarely, or not at all. Yes, there are types of stories that are more likely to be published for money than others. Yes, you should pay attention to that, if publishing is your goal.

But don’t ever forget that writing is an art, and at some point you’re going to have to ignore everybody’s well-intentioned advice, and write your own heart. And remember that the act of creation has a value all its own.

Writing Gender

“How do you go about writing a character that’s a different gender than yourself?”

That was a question I got at a panel at Wizard World Philadelphia, and it caught me completely off-guard.

This isn’t because it wasn’t a question I could answer, or even an issue I haven’t thought about. This was entirely because the question was addressed to me. I had spent the entire weekend on panels with Real Writers[tm] (I know, but you know what I mean), and Real Comic Artists and Real Movie People. It’s fortunate that I tend to go into performance mode when I speak in pubic, because I was suffering a serious bout of impostor syndrome all weekend.

And when I heard this question, my first thought was But I don’t do that.

I do, of course. I have a large cast, and while half my characters are female, the other half aren’t. I suspect the person was interested in hearing my approach to writing men. But I don’t actually have an approach to writing men. Sometimes a character is male, and it’s just another thing about them, and I don’t really think about it.

Which also isn’t entirely true, but I’ll get to that later.

In front of an audience, though, I had to come up with something. So I told people about a character in a book that’s not out yet. I told people about Dallas. And the combination of nerves, time, and my tendency to stammer, I explained myself…poorly.

Dallas shows up in the prologue of BREACH OF CONTAINMENT. Dallas is a parts scavenger, an astute businessperson, frequently sarcastic, a loyal friend, an introvert, something of a loner, a bloody good cook, and agender. Initially they were only going to show up in the prologue and Elena’s first scene on the moon of Yakutsk, but as I was twining the subplot through the story, it became obvious I needed another POV character. Fortunately, there was Dallas, fully realized and whispering in my head. (That’s how Çelik ended up with a POV in REMNANTS; at first he was just Elena’s irritating ex-captain, but he wouldn’t shut up.)

So Dallas pulls my subplot through the second two-thirds of the book, and I don’t write about their gender, because in the culture of my universe it’s not a notable characteristic. So it was odd for me to talk about the character from the perspective of gender, because I feel like I didn’t write them from the perspective of gender.

Except I did, of course, because one does.

Generally, when we write about gender, we’re not writing about gender at all, but the social structures and expectations around gender. It’s interesting, writing futuristic science fiction, thinking about what sorts of stereotyping and cultural pressures will be present in the future; but of course, since our readers are reading today, whatever we come up with has germinated from present-day assumptions. I use these assumptions all the time to hint at a character’s biases, at their blind spots, at their sexuality. I do it on purpose, sometimes to reinforce expectations, and often to subvert them.

The subtleties of Dallas were less straightforward. What I said to the Comic Con audience was this: that as I was editing, I read through the text once envisioning Dallas as male, and then again envisioning them as female. And I did indeed do that, but it’s just one small piece of what happened, and I feel like as stated it glosses over a lot of issues and potentially sounds like I’m casting agender people only in relation to those who adhere to a male/female binary.

Which wasn’t the intent of the editing exercise. The intent of the editing exercise was to deal with my own unconscious biases.

One thing that happens when you publish a book is that you can’t go back and change it. There are things I’d change in both my published books if I could go back to them. There are things I’d change in the one I just turned in yesterday. Perspectives evolve; the issues and ideas I want to write about grow and change.

I have always, from the beginning, wanted to write an egalitarian society, at least with regard to gender and sexuality. This wasn’t out of a desire to make a point. It was out of exhaustion. The world today is pretty awful in a lot of ways, and I write to escape. In my imaginary world, nobody thinks much about your gender or your sexuality (unless they’re romantically interested in you, in which case it becomes genuinely relevant, and even then no harm no foul). People care about what you do, not about the body in which you go around doing it.

And I found, writing this society, that I have my own weird, unjustifiable, lurking biases. Some of them I could catch while I was writing, and some of them I missed. I’m getting better, but I still trip sometimes. How could I not? I’m a rat in the same maze as everyone else. I try to see and learn and listen, but it’s a process, and I’m unlikely to ever purge all my blind spots. Elena, Jessica, Greg, and Ted are all coded female/male in ways I intended and ways I didn’t.

It’s the unintentional coding I wanted to avoid with Dallas, and that’s why I did the editing the way I did. I didn’t want the character to read as binary when they’re not.

And I’m sure, on some level, I still failed. There will be a lot of readers who assign Dallas one way or the other. We’re trained, we humans, to sort things, and our culture strongly reinforces the idea of two genders, never the twain shall meet. I didn’t write Dallas as an agender character; I wrote them as a character who is, among other things, agender.

Which is a cheat, really. But like I said: I write to escape. Beyond that, there’s a realism aspect to it. Just as the future isn’t going to be White Men In Space, neither is it going to be Gender Binaries In Space. Humans are already marvelously diverse and variegated now; in my posited future, where differences are accepted as usual, people of all sorts will be visible everywhere, and there’s not going to be much discussion of it.

This is how I write about politics: by not writing about politics.

In any case: I felt I’d given the question short shrift (apart from the bit where I pretty much dismissed the idea that writing men as a woman was anything like a stretch), and I wanted to clarify. It is something I’ve thought about, but it isn’t something I had prepared myself to discuss. I’m not a marginalized person writing a marginalized character; I’m an author who’s created a culture that has utopian aspects, and one of those aspects makes agender people as conventional as anything else.

Dallas is just Dallas, the character who showed up to save my plot.